Specific amendments proposed to National Conservation Bill
Private land should remain private, North Side legislator Ezzard Miller declared Wednesday night at a public meeting about the bill for a National Conservation Law.
Mr. Miller said the people of North Side have always wanted protected areas on crown land and conservation areas on their land.
Environment minister Wayne Panton replied, “That’s what the law intends.”
Mr. Miller retorted, “But that’s not what the law says.”
He suggested a specific amendment to the bill to make the matter clear.
Summarizing the concerns of the 20 other people at the Craddock Ebanks Civic Centre, plus the concerns of residents with whom he has discussed the bill in recent days, Mr. Miller made specific proposals for amendments and indicated he had many more.
Government is planning on introducing the bill Dec. 11, after 15 years of debate and discussions. The bill aims to “protect and conserve endangered wildlife and their habitats.”
Also discussed were the definitions of specific words in the bill, such as “acquire” as in acquisition of land; and “is liable” in the penalty section.
The first amendment he proposed was to section 9 (4), having to do with land that is not Crown land but which is nominated to be a protected area. The bill presently offers two alternatives: that the National Conservation Council would determine whether to recommend to Cabinet that the land be acquired by the Crown and a protected area order be made; or a conservation agreement be made with the proprietor of the area.
Mr. Miller proposed deleting the reference to “acquired” so that the subsection would read: “[I]f the area is not Crown land, a conservation agreement be made with the proprietor of the area.”
Mr. Panton indicated that this change could be considered.
The word “acquire” was discussed for some considerable time, with members of the audience speaking about the kind of acquisition they were familiar with – compulsory acquisition, as in government acquiring the land if the owner doesn’t want to sell it.
Mr. Panton said acquisition referred to the completed process, the point at which a certificate of title changes hands. He asked if people would be satisfied if the word “purchase” were used instead of “acquire.” One woman suggested it could be “acquisition by mutual agreement.”
The meeting, which lasted a little more than three hours, focused on issues arising from the conservation bill, with people in attendance referring to copies of the bill. One exchange, however, did emphasize personalities, when Mr. Panton referred to a Nov. 20 meeting to which MLAs were invited for a presentation of the bill. .Mr. Panton said he had asked for input afterward. His recollection of Mr. Miller’s response was different from Mr. Miller’s.
The minister recalled Mr. Miller saying his comments were too numerous and he didn’t have time and he wasn’t prepared to tell them to the gathering.
Mr. Miller said he had told Mr. Panton he was not prepared to talk on Nov. 20. “I practice participatory democracy,” he said Wednesday night, referring to his standard practice of bringing bills to his constituents in public meetings, but not getting a copy of the bill in time to do so.
Mr. Panton said he knew Mr. Miller preferred to have an audience.
He indicated that the two representatives did not have to continue the back-and-forth remarks and they were friends.
Mr. Miller replied, “I’m not too sure, after tonight.”
Those in attendance also asked about possible conflicts of interest for members of the conservation council, especially when it came to environmental impact assessments. Mrs. Ebanks-Petrie pointed to provisions in Schedule 2 dealing with the question and Mr. Panton pointed out that the Standards of Public Life Bill will also address the matter.
On man asked what would happen if someone owns a 250-acre parcel and one acre is considered a critical habitat. Mrs. Ebanks-Petrie assured him that the critical area had to be defined and the whole parcel would not be affected.
The penalty section of the law came under scrutiny because it states that a person who commits an offence under the law “is liable on conviction to a fine of five hundred thousand dollars or to imprisonment for a term of four years or both.”
Mr. Miller said the wording should be “a fine up to $500,000” or imprisonment “up to four years”. Mr. Panton and Director of the Department of Environment Gina Ebanks-Petrie said they had received the same answer from the attorney general and from the legal draftsman – that “liable” and “up to” meant the same thing and that was the drafting language.
Mr. Miller submitted that legislators have a responsibility to pass legislation that people can understand clearly.
He then raised a question about section 32 (2). It states that where a person has possession of a specimen or natural resource in a protected area, “he shall be deemed, unless he proves otherwise, to have taken it within that area.” He argued that this was reversing the burden of proof and it should be the authority to prove that the item was taken within that area. He cited boaters passing through a marine park as an example.
Mr. Panton indicated that common sense would have to be used and the Legal Department would look carefully at any such allegation.
Other changes Mr. Miller asked for included notices to adjoining land owners in addition to notices that are required to be published in a newspaper. Mr. Panton said he had no objection in principle.
Mr. Miller also asked for the deadline for written objections or representations be increased from 28 days to 90 days. He pointed out what at least two other people in the audience has asked about – that a lot of land in North Side is “estate land” – large parcels in which a lot of people are involved, some of whom may live overseas.
He reiterated his original position: “I don’t want you to protect any private land by acquiring it.”
After the meeting, Mr. Miller referred to a radio program on which he was to have discussed the bill with Mr. Panton and Mrs. Ebanks-Petrie. He said he would not be taking part.
Contacted on Thursday morning, Mr. Miller said his reason was not because of any animosity. “Based on their reactions to my suggestions last night, I don’t think they’re going to change,” he explained. The long-serving lawmaker said any debate or discussion would not be productive: he felt his time would be better spent speaking to his constituents and preparing for debate in the legislature next week.
The first amendment Mr. Miller proposed was to section 9 (4), having to do with land that is not crown land but which is nominated to be a protected area.